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Nothing Magical About Turning 18

Mary Lee is being honored as a Foster Care Champion of Change

Mary Lee

Mary Lee is being honored as a Foster Care Champion of Change

I came into the foster care system around the age of 12. I had never heard of foster care and didn’t know what to expect. I remember packing all my belongings in trash bags and leaving my family behind. I was told that I was lucky because I was placed in foster home rather than a group home.

At the time, I felt anything but lucky.

Fortunately, I excelled in school and it became my safe haven. It’s where I received praise and affirmation. It was the one place I could just be Mary and not a foster child. Still, there was still a part of me that longed to have a forever family and a sense of permanency. I wanted to know that there would be a place to come home to during holiday breaks at college, a dad to walk me down the aisle, and grandparents for my kids one day. Deep down, I knew there was nothing magical about turning 18. I wasn’t going to wake up on my 18th birthday and suddenly have my entire life figured out. I knew that family is about more than just your childhood. It’s about having a support system to rely on when things get challenging and having cheerleaders to celebrate your accomplishments.

I went up for adoption at the age of 16. Surprisingly, many people were negative. I heard things like: you’re unadoptable; you’re too old; no one wants a teen; why put yourself out there and risk rejection; wait and age out of foster care so you can have financial assistance for college. Again, I knew there was nothing magical about turning 18 and that I desperately needed and deserved to have a family.

Thankfully, my wish was granted. One week before my 18th birthday, I was adopted by my Department of Children’s Services case manager and his family. Almost 17 years later, they are still my family and my biggest supporters.

Today, I feel incredibly lucky. Because of foster care I found my forever family and have had opportunities to pursue my educational dreams. In fact, I’m one of the 1 percent of former foster youth who have completed a graduate/professional degree.

Foster care changed my life, and now I’m changing the lives of other youth who have experienced foster care through my work as the National YVLifeSet Coordinator at Youth Villages, a national non-profit organization helping at-risk children and families through a variety of programs. My role focuses on enhancing, growing and supporting Youth Villages’ initiatives with foster and at-risk youth transitioning to adulthood including the YVLifeSet program, which has helped more than 7,600 youth.

At Youth Villages, I also helped establish the YV Scholars program, enabling former foster youth to attend college while receiving additional support. While only 3 percent of former foster youth typically graduate college, the YV Scholars program has seen six college graduates in its first five years and nearly 50 more young people are on the path to undergraduate success.

In additional to my current work, one of my greatest achievements was helping ensure foster youth adopted from state custody would not have to choose between a forever family and funds to pursue higher education, like I did. My story inspired the Fostering Adoption to Further Student Achievement Act (nicknamed the Mary Lee Act), which gives youth who are adopted after the age of 13 the ability to be considered an independent student and not include their adoptive parents’ incomes in their aid request. Prior to this law, many older foster youth were deterred from being adopted for fear of losing financial support for college. 

Mary Lee is the National YVLifeSet Coordinator at Youth Villages. She is a graduate of Austin Peay State University and The Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis.